Real Clear Politics had an interesting in-depth article here by statistician David Byler, which I read after seeing it linked to on the Huffington Post homepage yesterday. Mr. Byler's article asked the question in its headline, "Will 'Proven Losers' Cost Democrats Senate Races in '16"? The question came about since Democrats have a number of potential candidates who might be running who have run before and lost -- indeed who were former senators, but got voted out of office (and now might run again).
After describing all the methodology and analyzing its resultant research, the conclusion that Mr. Byler came up with it in his last sentence was --
"And our analysis shows that, unlike presidential candidates, Senate candidates who lost once are typically not 'losers for life'"
In other words -- no. No, just because someone is a former candidate for the U.S. Senate who had previously lost, that doesn't mean that person will lose again. Fine, that makes sense. A reasonable question, a well-researched answer. The answer is No.
Although it makes sense, however, something was nagging at me. I was still a bit surprised by this result, yet didn't quite know why. Mind you, the opposite conclusion hadn't necessarily been my personal presumption before reading the article -- so, why did I have that nagging concern when reading it?? I went back and checked the Huffington Post headline that I'd originally clicked on, that took me to the Real Clear Politics story. It turns out...that was the reason for my nagging concern, and why I felt it important to read the article.
While the actual Real Clear Politics article raised the question to study -- "Will 'Proven Losers' Cost Democrats Senate Races in '16"? (to which it then answered, "no") -- the HuffPo link instead stated its headline and did so as a concerning, declarative sentence: "Proven Losers Could Cost Democrats in 2016."
To be fair, the headline is accurate. There's nothing in the actual story that suggests otherwise. A former loser could lose again. Absolutely. Then again, as the article makes clear, they could also win.
Ultimately, the headline did just what it set out to do. It piqued my interest. So, hat's off. Mind you, it did so in a deceptive way -- in fact, not just in making it seem the conclusions of the article were different than they were, but also in suggesting that the way such Proven Losers could cost Democrats was in the presidential race, but that wasn't the case either.
As a former publicist, I certainly understand a publication trying to grab its readers interest. And I also well-know by now that headlines can by hyperbolic and do want readers to check them out. This is my first -- or thousandth hyperbolic headline. So, this is hardly an earth-shattering issue. It happens, and it will continue to happen. But -- and this is the issue here -- there are smart ways to do that and ways that can be counter-productive. There are hyperbolic headlines that still remain true to the article, and ones that tell a near-totally different story. And there are publications that we know do it more than others, and those that do it much less. I just think that when you're hoping to be seen as a good, trustworthy news source, deceiving your readers isn't the best way to fly. It raises too many questions of trust that are the lifeblood of news coverage. (I include "Fox News" -- whatever you think of its coverage, its viewers trust what they're being told.) That's another thing I learned as a publicist and did my best to avoid: I knew I could fool a journalist and get a story -- but lose any chance of working with them again, or I could be a straight-forward, risk not getting the story, but try to find some other way to make the story valuable...or find some other story that would interest them and build a good working relationship. (Side note: this is a rule I learned, as I said, doing PR. I think we hold journalism to a higher standard of truth than we do movie study publicity...) As a result, this rule not only holds, but holds to an even far-greater extent with a deceptive news headline: You might get those initial click-throughs, but eventually you start eroding that patina of trust. Which can take a far longer time to win back, as opposed to the blink it takes to lose it.
Ultimately, you have to decide: is the story good enough to stand on its own without a razzle-dazzle, deceptive headline? If so, you have a great story. If not, well then perhaps it shouldn't go on your home page.
No, this was not an egregious action. It just wasn't a smart one.